At Her Feet

grayscale photography of woman kneeling on area rug
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Last night I saw the play, At Her Feet, for the third time, since its opening in 2002. This is the 13th run of the play which was written and directed by Capetonian Nadia Davids and performed by another Capetonian, Quanita Adams, for whom she originally wrote the play.

Essentially the play is about the stories of four Muslim women in Cape Town a year after the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York and, as such, it brilliantly brings to life the stories of ordinary women in Cape Town and the effect of the global incident and its repercussions for Muslims everywhere.

The play starts, though, with the honour killing of a Jordanian girl, plunging us straight into questions of race, religion, culture and gender, which run throughout, coming full circle to end with the lamentations of the dead girl’s mother. This theme also provides the background for Auntie Kariema’s poignant realisation of her own link to the dead girl through her experiences as a young child who had lost her mother.

The portrayal of four very different characters – the young Muslim narrator, the slam-dunk poet, the middle-aged ‘Malay’ auntie and the newly-married Indian-Muslim woman – is so real that I could recognise each one of them.

Each time I have seen the play, it has resonated anew with me, but last night’s performance echoed so many of the themes in my research and, ultimately, is representative of Cape Town, and South Africa, as a whole because of its reflection of the legacy of slavery. This 200-year old heritage was intimately connected to Islam and had a fundamental impact not only on the city but on the country.  As such it speaks to a much larger audience and its central themes raise questions of complicity of racism and bias while at the same time offering an empathetic window into a way of life and invites us to find our commonalities rather than our differences.

Last night was special, too, because it was a fundraiser for The Sunflower Centre at Zonnebloem School and Davids, as an alumnus, had donated the performance of the play for that purpose. I was invited by Zephne Ladbrooke of The Otto Family Foundation, who I had met in the car park at a shopping mall earlier this year. I had approached her because of the poster advertising the centre on her car, which led me back to my old school. Accompanying me was Trudy Rushin who I had met when we were pupils at Zonnebloem School for Girls and with whom I had lost contact until recently. So, it was extra special because of connections on so many levels that had not been made when I last saw the play. Life seems to move in circles…

The play, a one-woman, one-act performance, employs music, poetry and dance to bring its characters inside your head until you want to weep and laugh with each character (the small Golden Arrow studio at The Baxter Theatre serves to take you almost right onto the stage with Adams) grappling with the very complicated relationships and questions which they conjure up.

[The play takes its name from the hadith, Paradise lies at the feet of thy mother. A hadith, or saying, is a teaching which guides the behaviour of Muslims. Apart from honouring the role of all mothers it also emphasises the importance of women in society.]

The play is on at The Baxter Studio until 8 December. Do go and see it.

A Vision for Zonnebloem

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I drive past the wasteland of what used to be District Six, on a regular basis, the few houses, places of worship and the CPUT buildings emphasise the starkness, highlighting what is no longer there. But recently, that emptiness struck me anew. Perhaps it was the viewpoint I had from the school which I had attended so many years ago. As I stood in the car park in front of the chapel on the Zonnebloem Estate, looking down the hill towards the ocean, I was overcome by a sense of loss. Through the gap above the wall where there used to be a gate, was only open field. I remembered the rows of houses that had stood there, the women who had made toffee apples, koeksisters and tameletjies, and the children who ran to buy these offerings through the fence, at break time.

Walking around the school gave me a curious sense of déja vu, of having lived in this space which is not quite the same. The buildings stand where they have stood for decades, but are rundown and in desperate need of TLC, the cobbled stones in the avenue we walked up to the chapel, have been covered by tar, and the school seemed smaller than I remembered. Memories came creeping back like the cobbles emerging from under the tar in places, refusing to be forgotten. Assemblies on the tarmac, Wednesday morning chapel, going home with smudges of ash on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, uniform inspections and sitting at our desks eating our lunch before we could go out to play, because “young ladies did not eat outside”, and walking to the new Art Centre, where Mr Hopley taught.

I think of Zonnebloem as the “family school” – an aunt taught at the boys’ school, my brothers and cousins attended the school and various family members, my father included, had trained at the teachers’ college which is now the high school. Zonnebloem was started in 1858 by Bishop Gray who had started Bishops and St Cyprian’s, both for ‘white’ children, while Zonnebloem initially targeted the sons of African chiefs, “to remove them from heathen and barbarous influences and expose them to the full force of civilisation”. Later girls were brought to the Cape to study so that the boys would have Christian wives rather than “heathen girls”. In the early 1920s, the school concentrated on the training of ‘coloured’ teachers, to promote decency and respectability as the path to civilisation.

Zonnebloem was one of the good ‘coloured’ schools, relatively speaking. When I recently interviewed a past-teacher, she recalled with fondness the ethos of the school, the dedication of her colleagues. She said that the teachers did the best they could to instil pride and a positive sense of belonging. With dedicated teachers, limited resources but a determination to educate children who the apartheid government deemed lesser than, Zonnebloem produced fine graduates, who returned to teach or to give back to the community in other ways. One of these alumni was Jeremiah Moshoeshoe, the son of King Moshoeshoe, who studied there in 1859 and showed such promise that he was sent to study further at St Augustine Missionary College in Canterbury. Another was Harold Cressy who came to Zonnebloem in 1897 from Natal when he was 8 years old. He graduated in 1905 as a teacher at the age of 16 years and completed matric through studying on his own. Rejected by Rhodes University because of the colour of his skin, he was eventually accepted by the University of Cape Town where he became the first ‘coloured’ person to attain a bachelor’s degree. Cressy left a significant mark on education, so much so that the Harold Cressy High School was named after him in 1953.

Bishops and St Cyprian’s continue to flourish as among the top private (mainly white) schools in the province and country, while Zonnebloem’s buildings and facilities slowly but steadily decline … an indictment perhaps, on our post-apartheid society in which little has changed economically, and the most vulnerable continue to suffer. Ironically, Zonnebloem, because of its prime location, has been designated a quintile 5 school, which serves the wealthiest communities and therefore receives the least government funding. It is a state school on private property in buildings leased from the Anglican church. The pupils, however, are from the most socio-economically vulnerable communities and are largely Xhosa-speaking. Children come on buses and taxis rather than walking like I did with my two brothers.

I had not been back to the school since I left in the mi-1970s but was invited to the Sunflower festival, held at the school earlier this year, by Zephne Ladbrook of the Otto Foundation. Ladbrook and her foundation have over the last two years injected pockets of hope into these potentially dreary surroundings – opening a library that doubles up as an aftercare space, renovating two classrooms and erecting a pre-fab building for two more, engaging in various other projects to improve the experience of learners at the school. She dreams of sports fields which would serve not only the schools on the Zonnebloem Estate, but those in the surrounding area, none of which have access to sport facilities. The school is adjacent to land which would be ideal for this purpose but for a number of bureaucratic reasons, is unavailable for development as such.

I find it inconceivable that we still have to motivate for sports to be part of an inclusive programme to develop children and youth. Apart from the obvious health and fitness benefits, participation in sport has been proven to enhance academic and psychosocial development. Children learn so much more than how to play the game when they participate in sport – perseverance, patience, teamwork and building self-esteem are just some of the skills that enhance development into healthy, well-rounded and mature adults.  Sport can also play a major role in reducing criminal activity and substance abuse. I would argue that sport should be on an equal footing with language, maths and science, in developing our children.

Above all that, participating in sport provides opportunity to integrate within, and with other, communities, and here is where I see the overwhelming benefits of promoting sport at Zonnebloem that includes the surrounding schools. Ladbrook has swept me up in her vision of communities coming together to play on the Zonnebloem fields. District Six has become symbolic of the forced removals and destruction of communities that occurred during apartheid. How wonderfully appropriate then it would be if the estate were to become a hub of integration in the area, at once addressing the wrongs of the past, celebrating the legacy of the Zonnebloem alumni and shaping a generation of well-rounded individuals for a democratic South Africa. Perhaps this integration and redress will even include St Cyprian’s in the City Bowl and Bishops in the southern suburbs, drawing increasingly larger circles of inclusion and hope.

Potential projects which the Otto Foundation are hoping to complete are:

  • A new cricket field in partnership with WP Cricket.
  • A feeding scheme/vegetable garden in partnership with Ladles of Love and Rise Against Hunger.
  • Fix up bathrooms spaces and provide ‘dignity packs’ for girls in order to restore dignity.
  • Water storage and maintenance in partnership with SOS NGO; and an upgrade of security
  • Expansion of cultural extramurals such as a choir

The Otto Foundation would value support from local businesses and alumni and may be contacted via the following emails:  zephne@chrisottofoundation.com or karen@chrisottofoundation.com

This article was published in The Cape Argus 25 October 2018.

In my genes

My two grandmothers

A while back I met an Englishman who lives in South Africa and, detecting a trace of another accent, I asked him where he was originally from. He said that he liked to think of himself as a fine European blend of British, French and Italian roots. I wondered about that – what made him different to someone who might be a “fine blend” of African, Dutch, British and Indonesian roots? Why should the former be claimed with pride and the latter spoken about in whispers, viewed as sinful and criminal?

Of course, it all comes down to politics – the politics of slavery, colonialism and apartheid – and the pursuit of gold, god and glory, which I won’t go into now. In spite of scientific evidence that proves that all humans are 99% identical, the myths of polygenesis and racial superiority persist and everyday people use terms such as “mixed race” and “bi-racial”, or talk about different “races”. Issues of race and prejudice continue to shape our relations with each other and leave indelible scars on our psyche.

Yesterday I attended a talk by journalist, Sara-Jayne King, whose memoir, Killing Karoline, explores her life as the result of an affair between a ‘white’ British woman and her ‘black’ South African colleague. Born in the 1980s, at the height of apartheid, she is taken out of the country and put up for adoption in Britain, her mother returning to SA with the news that her baby had died (hence the title). In her book, King plots her path of self-destruction through addiction and eating disorders, and explores the feelings of insecurity and poor self-worth related to her identity.  Adoption on its own must come with attendant issues of rejection and belonging, but in King’s case it is underscored with the apartheid crime and sin of immorality. I believe that her attempts to destroy herself were in part a sub-conscious drive to punish herself for an inherent sense of shame related to not belonging. It’s this feeling of having done something wrong that is part and parcel of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Confronting it  needs to start with rejecting the concept of race which is based on the superficial distinction of skin colour,  hair, bone and facial features, in order to perpetuate power and control by one group over another. 

A few months ago, while on a visit to the USA, I did what I have been wanting to do for ages – ordered a DNA testing kit.  My friend, Mary, and I bonded over collecting samples of sputum and posted them off. I was not sure what to expect since my ancestors have variously been classified as ‘coloured’, ‘white’ or Cape Malay. In the context of South Africa this takes on layers of meaning and is imbued with a gamut of emotions, many of which are negative, like shame and worthlessness. Since I was immersed in my doctoral thesis about representation and identity related to growing up in South Africa during apartheid, I thought that knowing more about my ancestral make up might add some value to my research.

Consistent with what I know of my grandparents, my DNA results confirmed that I was a fine blend of South East Asian and European populations with a liberal sprinkling of sub-Saharan African. I found it quite affirming to have a written record – scientific proof – of a history that the apartheidists sought to erase in their attempts to subjugate and dehumanise us through fixing cosmetic differences and forcing us into prescribed boxes. The time for transcending race and regarding each other as human is long overdue.

King, S. 2018. Killing Karoline: A Memoir. Published by MF Books Joburg.

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers I

Every now and then I am moved to pen a few lines of poetry. I certainly don’t view myself as a poet, but there have been distinct moments when I feel the urge come over me! This happened a few months ago, while deeply immersed in the doctoral process. My parents have both been supportive of my process of trying to make sense of our roots. On this occasion my mother had been eagerly awaiting my visit so that she could give me two doilies that my paternal grandmother had crocheted for her many years ago (my grandmother died more than twenty years ago). My grandmother had crocheted to supplement her income and had skillfully produced not only doilies but bedspreads with an impossibly thin crochet hook and fine cotton thread.

I remember my mother having different sets of doilies for different occasions; they would be starched and ironed so that they stiffly maintained their shapes. There was something very poignant about the plastic bag she handed to me and the way the unstarched doilies softly fell out into my lap. This is my tribute to my grandmother.

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers

Mama made these doilies for me, my mother says,
as green and blue tightly crocheted
works of art fall softly
out of the plastic packet she’s kept them in.
I see my grandmother sitting
in her chair, grey hair escaping
from under a white cotton scarf
wrapped around her head;
her fingers hold the thin steel hook
wrapping cotton thread in elaborate patterns,
making poor man’s lace,
creating circles in the air to catch bad dreams.
Her hands are never idle, weaving and spinning
a livelihood to keep her family together,
her work good enough
for even white people, my father says,
the patterns out of a secret book in her head
dipped in starch and ironed to attention.
Round and round she goes
weaving circles of where she came from,
each stitch a link to the past,
a chain from Arab trade routes to Africa,
interlocking loops of yarn,
tiny stitches helping to feed her family.
I wish I had followed that thread
of journeys across oceans,
wish that I had asked her to teach me
how to catch dreams.

This poem was published on the AVBOB 2017 Poetry competition website and also appears in a special edition of Stanzas Number 13. Sept. 2018. 

Nazism, Racial Science and Apartheid

 

In 2013 a human skull was discovered during renovations of the anthropology department at Stellenbosch University.  The skull (thought to be that of a woman of mixed ancestry) was found along with two hair and eye colour charts which were used to measure and classify humans in order to justify racism during the 1930s and 1940s. The case of the hair colour chart bears the name of Dr Eugen Fischer, a leading Nazi eugenicist. An identical silver case was found by the university’s Professor Steven Robins at the Max Planck Society Archives in Berlin in the course of his research.

Dr Eugen Fischer, who published his findings in 1921, was one of many German scientists intensely interested in the ‘mixed-race’ people in South-West Africa, the Rehoboth Basters or ‘The Bastards’ as he referred to them. After examining 310 children of Nama women and ‘white’ men, he concluded that they were racially superior to pure Negroes but inferior to pure ‘whites’, but racial mixing was to be avoided. His findings contributed to the prohibition of inter-racial marriage in all German colonies.

Fischer later headed the Kaiser William Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, in Berlin and served as one of the scientists on the Gestapo’s Special Commission Number Three which performed forced sterilisation on the ‘Rhineland Bastards’, children born of the union between German women and Senegalese soldiers stationed in the Rhineland after WWI. According to historian, Niall Ferguson, this was the notorious ‘Black Shame’ that produced fresh evidence of the conspiracy to pollute the blood of the Aryan race.

Stellenbosch’s students of cultural anthropology not only used Fischer’s tools of racial classification from 1926 to the mid-1990s, but used a textbook written by Fischer up until the 1960s. The discovery points to the close links between apartheid and Nazism and raises questions as to the history of the use of classification tools at the university. Stellenbosch University (considered the intellectual heart of Afrikanerdom during the apartheid era), is the alma mater of both Hendrik Verwoerd, who as prime minister introduced the first apartheid laws in 1950, and his secretary of state for Native Affairs, Max Eiselen, a cultural anthropology student.

Pseudo-scientific racism has provided the basic justification for slavery since the late 18th century.  This pseudo-science asserted that mankind was not a single more or less homogeneous species but was subdivided and ranked from an Aryan ‘master race’ down to a ‘black’ race unworthy of the designation Homo sapiens. Francis Galton’s observations of the Herero and Nama people in South West Africa (Namibia) in the mid-19th century would later inform his thinking about human evolution. His anthropometric work on human heredity laid the foundation for the discipline he christened eugenics. Galton’s theories that Africans were biologically inferior were enthusiastically embraced and justified the claim to Africa by more advanced ‘white’ Europeans. These theories were to have a devastating influence on the people of Germany’s newly-acquired African colony, South-West Africa (Namibia), who would provide the test subjects for this racial science.

In Andre Brink’s post-apartheid novel, The Other Side of Silence, he examines the violence of life in colonial societies such as South West Africa through the eyes of a young German woman. The horror of the violence described in this novel is not only an indictment on colonialism and masculine attitudes in German South West Africa but also for South African society.Not only were the Herero and Nama peoples exterminated in great numbers but the Germans conducted further trials on their bodies in the name of ‘race hygiene’. Autopsies were performed for racial-biological research; sample skulls were scraped clean by female prisoners to be sent to Germany, chillingly described in Brink’s book.

The discovery at Stellenbosch University indicates how the past continues to inform the present in South Africa and how intricately linked colonialism, racism and apartheid are. It provides us with an opportunity to examine our history and a vehicle to understanding how our society may be transformed.

This is an extract from my article published in the African Independent March-April 2018

A People with History

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Years ago I attended a women’s workshop and, as an icebreaker, we were asked to say out loud the names of the chain of strong women in our genealogies. I remember an American woman in the group who could trace her maternal line back to someone who had crossed on the Mayflower, the ship which had transported the Pilgrims from England to the New World in 1620. That was more than 300 years of history right there. It was with a vague sense of shame that I could only name my mother and her mother. I seemed lightweight, of little consequence, without any history.

I pressed my mother for more details afterwards, unable to comprehend that she hadn’t done the same to her mother. There were things you didn’t talk about, she replied to me, whispers of mixtures that were either shameful or illegal. Her mother had arrived in Cape Town, from Malmesbury, aged 14 with three younger siblings in tow, after their parents had died. They were sent to family who lived in District Six. Soon after, my grandmother went out to work at the Cavalla Cork cigarette factory to contribute to their upkeep. She hardly ever spoke about her parents, and my mother cannot recall her ever going back to Malmesbury.

As I have delved deeper into my history and that of South Africa, I have been taken on a journey that goes back hundreds of years, through apartheid, and all the way back to slavery and colonialism. Each step of the way has been a revelation, since I knew little more of our history beyond the strictly-controlled narrative presented in our apartheid-era schools. Slavery had been a subject glossed over, presented as a more benign version of slavery elsewhere, it had receded far behind the more dominant narrative of apartheid. And yet, 200 years of slavery has fundamentally shaped who we are as people and as a country.

There have been moments of depression while exploring physical, mental and psychological trauma inflicted on our people and despair over how we will ever heal and move forward as a country with such a brutal and dehumanising history. But I have also been buoyed by the spirit of resistance which brought into being a vibrant and diverse culture of music and dance, food, and language, in spite of repression.

Along the way there have been many signposts, guiding and encouraging me – Jacob Lawrence’s exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, documenting the migration of six million black southerners in the early 20th century; Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, dealing with the same subject matter; the opportunity to present at a conference on Racism and Social Justice in Charleston, South Carolina, the entry point of the majority of the 12 million slaves from Africa to America, and the keynote address by Dr Lonny Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History in the Mother Emmanuel Church on the second anniversary of a racially-motivated shooting.

Another one of those moments occurred about a month ago when I visited the South African Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the Slave Church, in Long Street, Cape Town. It is the oldest existing mission building in South Africa and the third oldest church in the country. It’s a handsome building, with Burmese teak doors, American pine ceiling and stone from quarries on Signal Hill and Robben Island, and oak pews on which the first slaves to be baptised had sat. This led me to the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), or Dutch Reformed Church, archives in Stellenbosch, which in turn led to an interview with Reverend David Botha, the 93 year old former curator of the Slave Church Museum. The role of the church is as fundamental to our history as slavery. A few days ago I followed that path to Genadendal, the oldest mission station in South Africa, but that’s a story for another time.

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What does this have to do with my grandmother and the women’s workshop? On a wildly optimistic whim I asked Karen Minnaar, the archivist at the NGK archives, if there might be any information on my grandmother who my mother believed had belonged to the NGK in Malmesbury, before coming to Cape Town. My grandmother had switched to the Anglican Church when she married my grandfather and became a staunch supporter of the church and its women’s fellowship. I wondered if my mother was correct about the NGK. Besides, my grandmother’s surname was Adams and I had very little hope of any success with such a common surname. Hopefully, I emailed Karen her name and date of birth (the day turned out to be incorrect). Later that day, Karen emailed photographs of the baptism entry with the names of her parents and those of her godparents, along with an official document on the NGK letterhead.

I am Nadia,

daughter of Hope Lorraine,

daughter of Ethel Jeanet Silvia,

daughter of Annie.

I somehow feel validated, more solid. And proud. So was my mother when I showed her the proof of her mother’s baptism and the names of her grandparents. That’s what having a history gives you. I feel vindicated on this journey to tell our stories.

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Images of my grandmother with me and my mother with me.

Let’s Ensure Slaves are more than Footnotes to History

Museums play a profound role both in preserving culture and educating the public. Ideally they should bring to life the stories of distant times and convey the humanity of the individuals who lived in those times. They should foster pride in our cultural diversities and correct stereotypes in their representation of those cultures. Especially in South Africa, our museums have a vital role to play in correcting the misrepresentations of the past and encouraging discussion on the way forward.

Sandwiched between the Daddy Longlegs Hotel and a hardware store on Long Street, is the SA Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the Slave Church. It is the oldest existing mission building in South Africa and the third oldest church in the country. The gabled cream and white façade with Corinthian pilasters, cornices and mouldings, mimics that of the Slave Lodge at the top of Adderley Street.

The property was acquired by the South African Society for the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom in 1801 and the building was probably constructed by slaves and free blacks for general religious activities. It initially prepared converts for membership of established churches but became a separate congregation of the SA Missionary Society in 1819 and part of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1937. It was in use as a church until 1971 when dwindling numbers as a result of forced removals led to its closure. In 1975 a special memorial service was held during which the congregation bid farewell to the church building. A new church in Belhar, a ‘coloured’ area in the northern suburbs, was inaugurated in 1978. The museum was established in 1979 with the intention of preserving the building and the legacy of Christian evangelism amongst the slaves and indigenous people.

The double front entrance door to the church, made of Burmese teak, leads into a yellowwood and American pine lobby, which was known as the “wind lobby” – doors could be open or shut depending on the direction of the wind to prevent dust blowing in or disheveling those inside. The Robben Island slate stone at the front door is the only remnant of the original floor. Teak columns support the main gallery and the two side galleries are supported by yellowwood columns painted to produce a marbled effect. The 750mm thick walls rest on a window-height base of broken stone (Malmesbury shale) from the quarry on the slopes of Signal Hill and soar up more than 10 metres to meet the curved ceiling of American pine.

It’s a handsome building but, sadly, all this was lost on us as we entered the church to be confronted by a market being set up. The furniture and exhibits had been pushed to the sides or front of the church behind the pulpit and we tried to navigate our way around screens, boxes and goods for sale. There was a sense of chaos and disrespect for the space as a place of worship. While I can understand that renting out the space brings in revenue, it seems like desecration of a spiritual space to use it for retail purposes. Moreover, I cannot understand why this is done on a day when the museum is open to the public. I cringed every time I saw a tourist enter the building, stare around bewilderedly and then turn and walk out. I was there with a group of university students hoping to learn a bit more about our slave history.

I had expected to enter the space with a sense of reverence, to hear the gentle creak of the floorboards whisper the names of the first four slaves baptised here – Domingo…Job…Arend…Durenda. I wanted to sit quietly on one of the oak pews, and trace my finger along the carved wood pattern and think about Rosina…Dina…Spasie Helena…Frederik Johan Hendrik, the second group of candidates to become members of the community. I wanted to imagine their voices lifted up in songs of worship as a gust of southeaster blew in among the congregation and ruffled their hair or upset a hat. I wanted to hear the mutterings of a congregation broken up by forced removals, saying goodbye to their spiritual home. I wanted to pause and reflect on where we it was we have come from.

At the very least, one should leave a museum with a sense of what happened, to whom it happened and what that meant then and now. I walked out without any sense of the congregants of the mission church, without any sense of the significance of a period in our history which has fundamentally shaped who we are. Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas. While it was glossed over in our history books and presented as benign and minor, it is up to us to make sure that the lives of slaves are more than footnotes in history, that they were more than just possessions. It is up to us to present the counter-narrative of individuals and to create spaces that allow a glimpse of their humanity. Chinua Achebe, the prominent Nigerian novelist and essayist, in a 1994 interview said that storytelling “is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”

This article was published in the Cape Times  6 March 2018

The Making of Martha

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Katrina was on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when she felt the faintest kick, almost like a flutter in her belly. She sat back on her heels and cupped her wet hands over the spot. There it was again, like butterflies in her stomach…like the butterflies in Namaqualand…in spring…when the flowers were out. That’s the one time of the year a person could say the place was beautiful. After the rains they’d be rewarded with carpets of yellow or purple, for all the months of emptiness. A person could almost ignore the holes gouged out of the earth by men digging for diamonds or copper, as the broken landscape burst into life. She smiled at the memory of running barefoot through fields of flowers, making a daisy chain to crown her baby sister and holding her breath as a butterfly balanced on her shoulder.

Ag, there she went again, wasting time on daydreams, her madam would say. She shook her head as if to get rid of the images and sighed as she picked up the scrubbing brush again. She’d left the vygies and daisies, the aloes and the orchids, behind a long time ago. She couldn’t remember when last she’d spoken to her brothers and sisters. If it wasn’t for the black and white photograph stuck into the mirror in her room, she wondered if she would even remember what they looked like. Bitterfontein. The name said it all, she thought to herself as she got up with another sigh. The bitterness had even seeped into the water. At least here she had a job; there was one less mouth for her father to feed. It didn’t help to worry about things a person could do nothing about.

“Katrina, I’m leaving now,” Mrs Laing shouted down the passage. “Don’t forget to bring in the washing before you go off. It looks like rain. And make sure the gate is locked properly this time.”

“Yes, Madam,” Katrina replied, poking her head round the kitchen door. “See you tomorrow, Madam.”

Katrina had been working for Mrs. Laing, a white lady, in Roeland Street for a year now. Her madam worked her hard but she was grateful to have a job where she could live in. It also paid better than her previous job and she was off on Saturday afternoons. “But no men and no drink allowed,” Mrs. Laing had warned when she started.

Katrina finished up, washed and changed into a pink floral dress, gathered under the bodice with a generous skirt which skimmed over her hips and stomach. She wanted to go see Hajji quickly this afternoon and maybe there would still be time to watch the new James Dean film playing at the Gem. She walked down Drury Lane towards District Six, to Combrinck Street where the dressmaker lived. The rows of semi-detached houses looked a little shabby but most people had made an effort with their front stoeps – they were painted red or green and polished every week, there was a potted delicious monster plant or two, and perhaps a bench to sit on in the evenings when the day’s work was done and a person had a chance to catch up with a neighbour.

Katrina went around the back of the house through the open kitchen door. There was no one there, but smells of onions braising with cardamom and cloves greeted her. She noticed the chopped cabbage, potatoes and mutton knuckles waiting to be added to the pot. Hajji must be making a bredie. She could hear the sound of the sewing machine coming from the back and called out, “It’s me, Katrina,” as she went in. Hajji was sitting behind the Singer which stood in the corner of her sons’ bedroom. Her head, covered with a scarf, was bowed in concentration as she guided the fabric through the threader and pumped the pedal of the black enamel machine. Four identical dresses in powder-blue satin hung on the front of the wardrobe. As a dressmaker Hajji’s beadwork was very popular with Malay and Christian brides, even the Jewish people came to her. The small room did double duty as her workroom by day. Her sons often complained that they had to watch out for pins in the bedspread or that they stepped onto beads on the floor with their bare feet. Hajji, practical as always, had told them to put on shoes and given them a magnet to pick up the pins.

Hajji had four children, and one from her husband’s first marriage, who was working at a butcher in Salt River. All three boys would soon leave school, one by one, to learn a trade. Hajji’s daughter, Fatima, was already apprenticed to a dressmaker in Walmer Estate.

“Salaam Hajji,” Katrina greeted, respectful of Hajji’s religion, even though she herself was Christian. “I see supper is cooking already. Hajji must be going out this evening.”

“Alaykum Salaam, Katrina,” said Hajji, taking the pins out of her mouth. “Yes, I’m very busy. I have to finish this dress tonight. That Van der Ross girl is getting married tomorrow. She lost weight again. I have to take the dress in. Poor child is already so thin.”

Hajji always did the final fitting the day before the wedding. She said it was bad luck to finish the dress too long before the time. So she made sure to put in the last stitches late at night, her fingers flying over the silk and satin. She delivered the beaded creation herself on the morning of the wedding. Hajji also dressed the bride in petticoats, underskirts of stiff netting, and finally the gown. She was skilled at shaping the gilded medora into a headdress. Sometimes she would be asked to prepare the bruidskamer for the Muslim brides as well, making drapes, cushions and quilted bedspreads with satin and lace.

When Hajji wasn’t busy with a wedding she made outfits for Eid or other special occasions and simple frocks with fabric she bought on the Grand Parade. Katrina and her friends bought these dresses on lay-bye, paying off a small amount every month. Hajji recognized the dress Katrina was wearing today as one she’d made last year.

“Can I make Hajji some tea?”

Ag, Katrina, I don’t have time for tea now. Is there something you wanted?”

Ja, Hajji, I have to talk to you about a problem. Hajji can mos see what’s going on with me.”

Katrina turned to the side in front of the mirror, and, placing one hand under her breasts, she smoothed the dress over her stomach with the other. There was no mistaking the curve of her belly when you looked at her profile. Her breasts were also fuller and Hajji realized she was glowing. She recalled that Katrina had mentioned the last dress she made for her was too tight but she hadn’t brought it to be altered yet.

Ag man, Katrina, you’re pregnant aren’t you? I warned you.” Hajji clicked her tongue. “It’s that Ginger, isn’t it? And where’s he now? You let a white man take advantage of you. I told you, they don’t marry you. The man can pull up his pants and walk away. And then you sit with the problem.”

“Hajji, please don’t be cross with me,” Katrina said sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. “I’m so scared my madam is going to send me away when she finds out that I’m pregnant. What am I going to do? I can’t go home. My Pa will beat me. What about my Ma? She’ll be so ashamed that her daughter is pregnant. What will the people say at church? In any case, what will we live on? There’s no job, not enough food. I think Pa was only too happy when I said I was coming to Cape Town. How can I go home with another mouth to feed?”

“I suppose Mrs. Laing hasn’t noticed what you are hiding behind that big overall and apron she makes you wear. Mind you, it won’t be too long before she does. What if she throws you out? Then what are you going to do? Ooh, Katrina, where are you going to find another good job like this one?”

Hajji had a soft spot for Katrina. Before Hajji and her husband had gone to Mecca the year before, Katrina had come to help with all the visitors even though it was her afternoon off. She’d set the table with plates of biscuits and tarts (all made by Hajji), bowls of dried fruit and nuts bought from Wellington Fruit Growers in Darling Street, and Hajji’s best tea set with the gold teaspoons. Katrina was honest and worked hard, she deserved a chance. She was just attracted to the wrong men, always thinking this would be the one to take her away from it all.

Hajji had known that this Ginger would be trouble. From what she heard from Amiena, whose husband had the corner café, he was charming but unreliable. He didn’t seem to have a fixed job but always had money. Katrina was flattered that he took an interest in her, loved the status of having a white boyfriend. The other girls looked up to her when they saw the two of them together at the bioscope on a Saturday afternoon. They thought she was one of the lucky ones, maybe she could even “pass”, or maybe she and Ginger could go to Botswana or Swaziland to get married.

“Katrina, look, I don’t mind,” Hajji said, “I can look after the baby for a bit, to help you out. But only for a little bit, ok? Maybe your madam needs time to get used to the idea and then she’ll let you keep the baby there. Your madam thinks we’re stupid but everybody knows her daughter’s baby came six months after the wedding. She must think we don’t know how long a baby takes. Premature, my foot.”

Hajji had been sewing for Mrs. Laing for years; that’s how she and Katrina had met. She’d made the wedding dress for Mrs. Laing’s daughter, Sarah, and had pleated the layers of chiffon to drape over the beginnings of a bump, although no one had said a word.

An extract from a story published in The New Contrast 178 Vol 45 Winter 2017

Remembering Slavery in South Africa

pexels-photo-147635.jpegThe history of slavery and colonisation in South Africa has largely been ignored (except in academic circles) in favour of the more dominant narrative of apartheid. However, given that the Cape was colonised two centuries before the rest of South Africa, the importance of this legacy and its impact on social and economic conditions is fundamental to the understanding of contemporary South Africa.

Slavery was a subject glossed over in the history classes we were taught in apartheid-era schools. Presented as a more benign version of slavery elsewhere, slave-owners in South Africa were portrayed as paternal figures caring for their child-like slaves while attempting to ‘civilise’ them. As a child I was vaguely aware that the Coon Carnival my parents took us to watch in District Six each New Year or the liederen sung at ‘Malay’ weddings had a connection to slavery. The absence of published slave narratives confirmed that slaves were nothing more than possessions, their histories undocumented apart from lists of slave-owners’ possessions, estate transfer documents and court cases. It is only in the last thirty years that studies on slavery at the Cape have presented a counter-narrative.

In 1652 the VOC established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope. Six years later the first slaves from the coast of Guinea and Angola arrived to meet the increased labour needs of the colony, but by 1700 about 50% of slaves came from the coast of India. By 1660 the Cape was a busy port where a multitude of languages were spoken and women from all backgrounds bolstered the population. The VOC turned a blind eye to the fact that the slave lodge served as a brothel for garrison soldiers and passing sailors, since it increased the slave population and within two decades liaisons between Europeans, slaves and the Khoisan had given rise to a population of mixed origin.

Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas, although both the British and the Dutch occupied the Cape during this time and were responsible for the continuation of slavery until it was abolished in 1834. As happened elsewhere, discrimination arose against non-Europeans and people of half-European descent. Racial prejudice and ethnic division laid the foundation for apartheid in South Africa and a climate of violence and the devaluation of the labour of domestic workers and farm labourers.

Author and academic Gabeba Baderoon (2014) observes that “slavery generated foundational notions of race and sex in South Africa” that has largely been forgotten through the sustained system of propaganda that portrayed slavery as mild. However, the legacy of slavery is not only present in our ideas about race and sex, but in the high levels of violence that South Africa continues to experience today.

But to remember slavery is also to remember the spirit of resistance which brought into being a vibrant and diverse culture of music and dance, food, language, in spite of repression. When we commemorate the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in South Africa, we should remember with pride the contributions to our society by the ordinary people who found ways to survive the harshness and cruelty while holding onto that which made them human.

This is an extract from my article REMEMBERING SLAVERY IN SOUTH AFRICA published in the African Independent magazine, Issue 1 Dec/Jan 2017/18.

Ms Markle, The Prince and the Question of Race

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So Ms Markle has found her prince and all of the modern world has seen photographs of the happy couple and the ring and shared her unconventional background on social media – she’s an American, an actress, a divorcee, older than the prince, her mother is a social worker and yoga teacher – all pretty quirky for the Royal family. But there’s more – her mother is ‘black’, descended from slaves and wears dreadlocks and a nose ring, and her father is ‘white’ of Dutch and Irish stock and works in the film industry.

Of course, the Mother Grundies have not missed the opportunity to pass judgement which is not only racist but also classist, so much so that the Prince had to step in to appeal to the media to refrain from abuse and harassment.

I love unconventional, I love quirky, I love things that don’t fit neatly into the box … but why, oh why, Ms Markle do you, and so many others, persist in “identifying as bi-racial” and “mixed-race”, as if your parents are from two different species and you are the creation of some intergalactic union? When are we going to stop referring to bio-geographical differences as races? There’s no note of Papa Markle being of mixed “race” even though his ancestry is a mixture of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds.

It’s almost 160 years since Charles Darwin arrived at the radical conclusion that we were all one species in his book, Origin of the Species (1859). Radical, that is, for his time (1809-1882) when the prevailing views were of the innate inferiority of the Negro, and people in the New World associated slavery with dark skin colour. Once black and slave became synonymous, anti-black racism increased in intensity and later became institutionalised in the American South as segregation and in South Africa as apartheid.

Historian, Niall Ferguson, says that Europe’s monarchies were prepared to cross oceans and conquer continents in pursuit of ‘God, Gold and Glory’, but without the African slaves who worked the land, Western Europe would have remained underdeveloped and dependent on the East for input regarding technology, culture and wealth. Both science and religion[1] were being used to justify the enslavement and exploitation of millions of Africans and Asians. A common belief was that black people were not far from apes in origin, so Darwin’s proposal that all people shared a common origin (monogenesis) was indeed a dangerous one.

Although the idea that God had created two men, one white and one black, went against the Christian teachings of the unity of mankind, it led to the anatomical and scientific examination of black bodies and skin, and the Royal Society went so far as to suppress research which found skin colour to be a superficial distinction among humans. The theory of polygenesis was used by British colonialists to justify the perpetual slavery of Africans as well as the subjugation of Native Americans.

Darwin was an abolitionist (both his grandfathers were active in the English anti-slavery movement) and he was reportedly deeply affected by his experiences of slavery during his voyage on the scientific research ship, the Beagle. However, while he believed in the monogenic origin of humanity, he still divided humans into different races based on superficial differences in skin, eyes and hair and believed that Europeans (or ‘whites’) were evolutionary more advanced than darker skinned people, according to Steven Rose, professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University. Likewise, Darwin’s views concerning differences between males and females reflected the bias of his time, that males were biologically stronger.

When Nobel Prize winners, Watson and Crick, discovered the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, the idea that “the blood” (or the genes) is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities was disproved once and for all. All humans are 99% genetically identical; there is only one human race. To use terminology such as “bi-racial” or “mixed-race” is to imply that there is more than one human race and perpetuates the myth of racial superiority. Yes, different populations of people may display differences in biological make-up, but these are due to what Professor Rose calls bio-geographical ancestry. So people living in the northern or southern hemisphere, hot or cold climates or in isolated areas versus densely populated ones, may appear differently to others.

The reactions to Ms Markle’s rise from slavery to royalty, as it has been called by one publication, is evidence of the pervasive racism that infects our society and it is unfair to place the burden of these perceptions on one person’s shoulders and expect change. But, maybe, if all this issue does is raise awareness and gets people talking, it will be worth the media hype … but let’s get the terminology correct. Words are powerful.

[1] The so-called ‘Curse of Ham’ was the most important biblical justification for slavery; in the Book of Genesis, Noah curses Ham, the son of Canaan, to be the ‘servant of servants’.

This article was published in The Cape Times on 14 December 2017 under the heading: Why, Meghan, do you, persist in identifying as ‘bi-racial’ and ‘mixed-race’?